Thursday, March 21, 2013

What Did the Medieval Philosopher-Theologians Think They Were Doing?

About twelve years ago, I came to an academic fork in the road. That sounds momentous. Actually, I just had to make a decision. I could choose either to spend another semester studying Hebrew, or I could choose to take a course in some other field. At that point in time, some of Yale's Old Testament faculty were on sabbatical. There were also faculty gaps because the University was in between appointments. Consequently, the obvious course for me to take next in Hebrew was not then being offered.

At the same time, Yale was offering "Philosophy of Religion," which was to be taught by the renown Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. This would probably be the last time Wolterstorff would teach the course. I had neither the time nor the money to take two classes.

I'm not exactly sure how I knew it, but I knew that Wolterstorff was a world-class philosopher. Somehow, I also knew that he was nearing the end of his teaching career. Already I had taken a class with Brevard Childs and another with Leander Keck. I had also sat in on a class taught by Abraham Malherbe. I was witnessing the changing of the guard at Yale University. The course with Wolterstorff would make my experience with the "old scholars" that much more complete. So I signed up for "Philosophy of Religion."

What follows are some of the notes I took during the first few class sessions, notes that I have since filled out and filled in with either some of my own words, or with words that I suspect Professor Nick either said, or might have or could have said. The opening illustration is my own, so if you don't care for it, you know who to blame:

At Manaus, Brazil, the Rio Negro (Black River) meets up with the Rio Salimoes (Yellow River). Each river is massive in its own right. Flying overhead, you can see that the two flow side by side, unmixed, for several miles. If you venture out in a boat and go to that line between black and yellow, you will see and hear strong whirlpools, the sights and the sounds revealing the power of the current on both sides. Eventually, the two converge and become one of the most incredible rivers in the world: the mighty Amazon.

A basic premise of this course is that what we call the Philosophy of Religion developed as a result of a specific historical confluence: the Christian faith and its convictions met up with Greek philosophy and its questions. Thus, the issues that make up what is called "Philosophy of Religion" are not inherent to every place and time. Instead, they are historically conditioned. The questions are not timeless, but grow out of specific contexts. That said, let's establish some of the necessary context for understanding what we're going to call "The Medieval Episode in the Philosophy of Religion."

When Medieval philosophers talk about what we call the Philosophy of Religion they use the language of "natural theology." And by "natural theology" they're referring to something that a person in their day would pursue for at least one of four related reasons:

1. The search for happiness
2. The development of scientia
3. The support of sacred theology
4. The attempt to transmute faith into knowledge.

One by one, let's expand on these points:

1. The philosophers of the medieval period took for granted that human life has a goal, an end, a purpose: what the Greeks called a telos. The medievals assumed that we humans are in search of something. And for each person it's basically the same thing; namely, quietude, well-being, happiness--although the word happiness connotes the idea of pleasure, and that's not exactly what they had in mind. For what it's worth, this assumption came straight out of the writings of Plato.

Now, someone might object that individuals disagree on what constitutes well-being or happiness. What exactly is it?! My step-daughter is convinced that ultimate happiness and well-being would come as the result of her being married to a guy called Lil' Wayne. But as you might guess, to me that prospect for her, or for anyone else, has no such appeal. And that leaves open the question of how we should define well-being.

Assuming that we arrive at an answer to that question, we then have another question: What are the means of achieving what we agree is happiness? So the two questions are: (1) What are we searching for? (2) And how do we find it?

According to medieval philosophers, what provides us with the deepest happiness is the satisfaction of the mind, the pursuit of intellectual goals. In other words, contemplating what is good and best and excellent is what leads us to well-being. "And what is good and best and most excellent?" you might ask. They would answer, "God, of course!"

Now, assuming with them that the contemplation of God is the most excellent way, we go to the next question: Where to you get the requisite knowledge of God? It's only when we know who and what God is that we can contemplate Him. This is a challenge, one that was sized up very well by Thomas Aquinas. He observed that the problem is, it seems like everyone has a common-but-confused sense of God:

Common because we all see the natural order, the obvious design of the world, and we intuit that there is a great designer. As a result, there is a common, general religiosity or "religiousness" within the human family. Common as it might be, however, our religiousness is also confused:

Confused because that knowledge or awareness of ours doesn't have further direction. For example, the creation doesn't tell us much more about what the Creator is like. It doesn't tell us how many gods there are. For example, some people think there's one god and other people think that there are thousands of gods. So our common religiosity is clouded by the lack of more definite, more specific information about the deity.

2. So, is there something that will "uncloud" all of this for us? Yes, said Aquinas. It's called scientia (in Latin). Now, the first thing we need to know about the Latin word scientia is that it does not mean what we mean by the English word "science." Scientia "consists of that body of propositions which have been deductively demonstrated from premises that are evident to rational beings." (In the interests of precise definition, we might note that Aquinas does not refer to the premises themselves as a part of scientia, but only the conclusions. This is mainly an academic distinction. Aquinas would have been the first to affirm that a correct conclusion does not proceed from false premises. At the same time, he does not refer to the premises as scientia, but only the conclusions).

A proposition is self-evident if it is impossible to grasp the proposition without understanding it and believing it. For example, if I have a sibling, then it's clear that my sibling has a sibling. If I have a spouse then is self-evident that my spouse has a spouse. You would never say, "Mr. Bellizzi has a spouse, but it is far from certain that his spouse has a spouse." If you grasp, if you understand what is being asserted by "Mr. Bellizzi has a spouse." then it is self-evident that "Mr. Bellizzi's spouse has a spouse." By the way, this points up one of the tragic ironies of American history: the signers of the Declaration of Independence applied this ancient philosophical definition in a very specific way. They said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men were created equal . . . ." In retrospect, we know that many of them and their political heirs did not really consider that to be a self-evident truth. If they did, they certainly botched the application of that truth.

Now, building upon self-evident truth, medieval philosophy arises in the context of a rigorous scientia that is often hard to follow. And that's what repels so many people when they first read it. It seems stiff and stuffy and boring. Not only that, scientia has its defects and shortcomings:

a. It does not tell us what God is like. It does say a lot about what God is not. But it never really defines the essence of God. It doesn't tell us who or what God is.

b. Not many people have the time and the opportunity to make this sort of investigation. There are many pre-requisites to the medieval approach and not everyone (far from it) can meet those prerequisites.

c. It's possible that you will commit errors and wind up proceeded on false premises. So there's anxiety. "Did I get it right?" If not, then the whole project is off.

A note on how to read Saint Anselm and Thomas Aquinas: The high medieval assumption was that their ancient texts (like the Bible, Plato, etc.) were a body of deeply-articulate wisdom and truth. Differences between, say, Plato and Aristotle were glossed over or harmonized. The medievals wanted the disparity of their received texts not to exist.

There is (for people who can't or who don't want to pursue scientia) what Aquinas calls "the second way," and that's the way of faith. This is the way of accepting the revelation of God on God's "say so"; accepting the testimony. You take things on "say so" when you cannot see that something is true. What gives you certainty about the testimony though? Aquinas says, "Miracles." (This, of course, fails to satisfy us moderns. But it seems to be perfectly acceptable to Aquinas). This "second way" of Aquinas (again, the first way is pursuing scientia) is said to be superior because the acceptance of testimony (i.e., faith) can take you further than scientia can take you. Not to mention that it's a heck of a lot easier.

3. Sacred theology starts with the content of the Christian Scriptures and attempts to organize it into a system. It also attempts to defend the system against detractors, not only deflecting the objections, but also showing that the objections are false. However, the Bible does not establish the existence of God. It assumes it. So a natural theology (the philosophy of religion) is very handy for a sacred theologian because natural theology holds out the promise of establishing the existence of God, so that the study of the Scriptures (which are all about God) can proceed with confidence.

Aquinas considers sacred theology to be a sub-ordinate discipline. What's the idea here? Mathematics is an example of a super-ordinate discipline. Music is sub-ordinate, because the musicians depend (for tempo) on what the mathematicians have figured out. In the same way, sacred theology is a sub-ordinate science because what is super-ordinate is God and angels and the saints. So, in the medieval period, the philosophy of religion, natural theology was thought to be superior to sacred theology because "sacred" depended upon and assumed the results of "natural."

4. Transmuting faith into knowledge. Let's say that you're a Christian. You don't want to be a religious leader, a professional theologian, or anything of the sort. But you are interested in what we today would call "spiritual development." In that case, Aquinas would encourage you to pursue the study of natural theology because, although faith is in some ways superior, seeing something to be true is better than merely accepting testimony.

The defect of faith is that it can leave some doubts, like scientia, but only in a different way. Scientia leaves you doubting your conclusions because you may have missed a step along the way, or proceeded on a false premise, or some such. But faith can leave you doubting that the testimony really is true. So, Aquinas would say, you're better off if you transmute faith into knowledge, faith into understanding.

Now, in our own time the formula, "faith seeking understanding" is used to mean something like, "I'm a believer who wants to understand the Christian faith better." There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important in this study to recognize that in the Middle Ages, when the phrase was coined, "faith seeking understanding" meant "faith seeking to eliminate the need for itself by transmuting faith into knowledge." This actually begins with Clement of Alexandria and proceeds through Augustine all the way to the medieval period. In the writings of Anselm, such thinking is explicit.

In the writings of Anselm, he keeps referring to himself as an exile. What is the sure sign that he's living in exile? Answer: He doesn't have sight. That is to say, he doesn't know. Exile is a metaphor that he uses to describe his condition. Lack of vision. Lack of knowledge. And what is the cause of his exile? Sin! We were created in the image of God. Faith is the pre-condition of sight, but it is not the same thing as sight. Coming to sight depends upon argumentation. And coming to sight is one of the goals.


Adam Gonnerman said...

Gees. Heavy stuff.

For whatever it's worth, I heard Nicholas Wolterstorff speak at The Justice Conference last month.

Also, the comment moderation you are using is sadistic.

Bennie Anderson said...

Good stuff prof.